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Carole King: The 'Fresh Air' Interview


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Last week, CBS televised its annual Kennedy Center honors special, honoring Carole King, George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Seiji Ozawa, and Cicely Tyson. Our guests today are Carole King and one of the artists who showed up to salute her, Aretha Franklin. Carole King, our first guest, has had an extraordinary career as a songwriter and performer. With her first husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin, she wrote many hits for other performers in the 1960s. They included "One Fine Day," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "A Natural Woman," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "The Locomotion," and "I'm Into Something Good." One of those songs, "Up On The Roof," was performed at the Kennedy Center by James Taylor.


JAMES TAYLOR: (Singing) When this old world starts getting me down and people are just too much for me to face. I want to climb way up to the top of the stairs and all my cares just drift right in space. On the roof, it's peaceful as can be, and there, the world below – it don't bother me no how. So when I come home feeling tired and beat, I go up where the air is fresh and sweet.

BIANCULLI: In the late 1960s, Carole King stepped out from behind the scenes and started performing her own songs. Her 1971 album "Tapestry" broke the record for the bestselling album of all time. In 2012 she wrote a memoir called "A Natural Woman," and that's when Terry Gross interviewed Carole King most recently about her life and career. When she was writing songs for other people, she used to make demo recordings in order to demonstrate what the song sounded like. An album of 13 demos was released the same year as her book and included songs she did on her album "Tapestry." Let's start with one of those demos, "It's Too Late," recorded in 1970.


CAROLE KING: (Singing) Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time. There's something wrong here, there can be no denying. One of us is changing, or maybe we've just stopped trying. And it's too late baby, now it's too late, though we really did try to make it. Something inside has died, and I can't hide, and I just can't fake it. It used to be so easy living here with you. You were light and breezy, and I knew just what to do. Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool. And it's too late, baby now, it's too late, though we really did try to make it. Something inside has died, and I can't hide, and I just can't fake it.



Carole King, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your new book. I was struck, reading your book, by how much courage you had as, you know, a young teenager. You used to go to all the Alan Freed shows, and Alan Freed was a very famous disc jockey, like rock 'n' roll and R&B disc jockey at the time. And he would have these rock 'n' roll shows in which the top acts would perform, like, lots of them in each show.

KING: Yeah, like a list of each show was like a who's who of who was popular then or who was going to be popular, and sure enough, they all were.

GROSS: And you wanted to be part of that world. So you had your father, who was a New York City firefighter and could kind of get access to people. He set you up a little meeting with Alan Freed, and you told him you wanted to write songs. And I'm thinking, like, wow, that really takes courage.

KING: I - you know what? When I was younger, I was kind of fearless. I think it takes more courage to do things when you know more. I was completely naive, and I was like, why can't I do anything I want to do? You know, go for it. And you know what? I still feel like even in today's world, I feel that that's something that I want to say to people. My whole attitude was someone's going to get the thing or the opportunity that I was looking for. Why not me? And the other side of that is, if you don't try, you have no chance at all. So that was the attitude I had as a teenager in terms of advancing my interests.

GROSS: So it's a great story how you found Gerry Goffin. Tell us how you found him.

KING: Well, I - my family announced - we were living in Brooklyn, and my family announced that we were moving to Queens, and I have a line in the book - Queens? What could there possibly be in Queens? Well, as it turns out, you know, quite a few wonderful things, including Paul Simon, who I met first, before I met Gerry. Paul Simon and I went to Queens College in the same, you know, class. We were both freshman, as was Art, but I didn't know Art very well then. And Paul and I sort of got together and formed this little group that we called The Cousins. We didn't actually do anything except help other people with their demos or, you know, play - he played bass and guitar, I played piano, we both sang and we helped people out making demos.

And sometimes they'd pay us $25, which Paul said we'd have done it for free. But Paul and I never wrote together. It is astonishing to me now, but he - when I asked him years later, he said he wasn't much of a collaborator, and he didn't think he could write very good lyrics until "Sounds of Silence" went to number one, hello.


KING: But so that was not where I found my lyricists, oddly enough, but that's - I met Gerry Goffin at Queens College, and that is where I found a great lyricist. He was just outstanding.

GROSS: So you started writing songs together - you the melodies, he the music. Did you know right away, like, this was your lyricist? And what was it about his lyrics that made you realize he was good?

KING: In order of questions, yes, I did. And what made him so extraordinary as a lyricist was his ability to say in really simple words big ideas, big feelings, big thoughts. And the thing - for example, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," you just listen to the lyric of the first verse - tonight you're mine completely. You give your love so sweetly. Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you love me tomorrow? Is that not what every teenage girl is thinking? You know, it's - he - and he had the ability, he's, you know, he's a straight man, and he had the ability to get inside a woman's head and say the things women were thinking.


THE SHIRELLES: (Singing) Tonight you're mine, completely. You give your love, so sweetly. Tonight the light of love is in your eyes. But will you love me tomorrow? Is this a lasting treasure, or just a moment’s pleasure? Can I believe the magic of your sighs? Will you still love me tomorrow?

GROSS: Was he as sensitive to your feelings as a woman as he was sensitive in the lyrics? Do you know what I mean? He had these insights into women in the lyrics, yeah.

KING: No. No.



KING: But, you know, to be fair, I was so young. I was barely a woman. When we met, I was 16. When we married, I was 17. By the time I was 20, we had already had two children. And so I was really young and didn't have the ability, A, to identify my feelings or where my feelings fit into a marriage, and I couldn't have communicated them to him.

GROSS: And as you pointed out, it was before the women's movement, and a lot of what you might have articulated later was unarticulated in your mind.

KING: That's right, and unidentified in my mind. I couldn't even have identified what I felt was wrong.

BIANCULLI: Carole King, speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 2012 with singer-songwriter Carole King. She was one of the honorees last month at the Kennedy Center Lifetime Artistic Achievement Awards.


GROSS: You did some great demos, and it's fascinating to hear the demos that you made for other artists because when you and Gerry Goffin were writing together, you were writing for other performers. And you'd have to kind of - you describe this in the book, like, you'd channel their voices in your mind and write a song that seemed suitable for them, and then you'd do the demo.

And in some of the demos, it was just, like, you and the piano. And you can hear, like in the one I'm going to play, which is the one you wrote called "Take Good Care of My Baby" that Bobby Vee had a number one hit of in 1961 - what I find most interesting about the demo is how you often had the whole arrangement in your head, that you're not just writing melody and chords. You're hearing the arrangement that's later fleshed out with, you know, full instrumentation.

When a song comes to you, do you usually hear it fleshed out like that?

KING: Not always. It comes in stages. And also, again, credit to Gerry who, though not musical in the ways we know people as musical, like, he can't really sing very well, and he had a way of communicating to me what it was he heard. And so it's not just my vision. It's his that's incorporated, which our vision actually became one thing, which is probably why we were a couple.

GROSS: So I want to play a demo that I think is particularly interesting, and so I'm going to play "Take Good Care of My Baby" from your new demos album and then play the hit version by Bobby Vee. So the hit version was from 1961, and you demoed it just before that. So here's Carole King, followed by Bobby Vee.


KING: (Singing) My tears are falling 'cause you're taken her away, and though it really hurts me so, there's something that I've gotta say. Take good care of my baby. Please don't ever make her blue. Just tell her that you love her, make sure you're thinking of her in everything you say and do....


BOBBY VEE: (Singing) Take good care of my baby. Now don't you ever make her cry. Just let your love surround her, paint a rainbow all around her. Don't let her see a cloudy sky. Once upon a time, that little girl was mine. If I'd been true, I know she'd never be with you. So take good care of my baby...

KING: I love that you did that because to me as a songwriter and the maker of the demo, that is my joy. If I hear the vision, and I get it onto a demo and they run with it, that is my joy. And "Natural Woman" has a story about that. I mean, in the book I have the story of how we got the title of "Natural Woman" from Jerry Wexler. And then we went home and then we made the demo, and then they took the demo and ran with it. And all the people and all the layers and, of course, the great Aretha Franklin recorded it. And it's just a remarkable feeling to hear a song of yours come back with all the embellishments that you didn't quite imagine, but you sort of had in your head and there they are, only even better. That's joy.

GROSS: But you knew all those gospel chords. You can hear that on the demo.

KING: Yeah. I did.

GROSS: So, let's hear those two versions back to back now - your demo and Aretha Franklin.


KING: (Singing) Looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel uninspired. And when I knew I had to face another day, Lord, it made me feel so tired. Before the day I met you, life was so unkind, but your love was the key to my peace of mind. 'Cause you make me feel, oh, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman.


THE CHIFFONS: (Singing) Oh, baby, what you've done to me (what you've done to me) you make me feel so good inside (so good inside). And I just want to be (want to be) close to you. You make me fell so alive. You make me feel, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman, woman. You make me feel, you make feel, you make me feel like a natural woman, woman. You make me feel...

GROSS: That was Aretha Franklin, and before that we heard Carole King's demo of the song, which is the original recording of it. You had been so used to writing for other people's voices, channeling their voices in your head. When you became a performer yourself and you were writing songs for yourself, did you know who you were as a performer so that you could write songs for that person, for Carole King, performer?

KING: The answer is no, not really. Some of the songs were written with other people in mind and I wound up doing them - and honestly, I can't remember who the people were now. I talk about "You've Got a Friend." I don't know if I fully write this in the book, but that song, pure and simple, came through me. I sat at the piano. The song came through me. People say did you write it for James - James Taylor? And no - I mean, I didn't, I didn't. But what I did is - the whole "Tapestry" time, I was heavily under James's influence. I was playing piano in his band. I was out on a limited, sort of, college tour with him before I wrote and recorded a lot of the songs on "Tapestry." And I think "So Far Away" and then "You've Got A Friend" were written just with his voice in my brain. I wasn't writing for him, because God knows he didn't need other people's songs, but his voice was in my brain and he had such a profound influence on my writing.

GROSS: When you started writing songs, you were one of the very few women pop songwriters, you know, along with Cynthia Weil and, oh, "Chapel of Love." Why am I blanking out on her name?

KING: Jeff - Ellie Greenwich …

GROSS: Ellie Greenwich.

KING: … And Jeff Barry.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So do you feel that doors were closed to you at any point because you were – I mean, you were barely a woman. You were a teenager; you were a girl when you started. Did the men running the business take you as seriously as they would've if you were male?

KING: Probably more so because I was so young and I was a female. They probably took me more seriously in a way. Not seriously as an equal but as that's pretty remarkable that you're this good and you're so young and you're a girl. I mean, that's, I think - was the attitude. But I was always treated with respect.

In the book I describe how Don Costa welcomed me into his studio and, you know, introduced me to everybody. So I never experienced the disrespect that so many other women have experienced in my workplace. I have to say that.

GROSS: Do you remember the first time you heard one of your records on the radio?

KING: Yes, I do. It was "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," and Gerry and I were in what was his and then became our, '56 Mercury Monterrey. And we're listening to this coming out of the tinny speakers and we're like, oh, my God. I can't believe this. We were just through the roof and to the moon. It was just such a thrill. But I'll tell you what, that doesn't go away. When I made an album called "Love Makes the World," the first time I heard the single "Love Makes the World," which I wrote with two guys in New York, two New York hip-hop guys, I felt the same feeling of, like, wow, it's out there. It's on the radio.

GROSS: Carole King, thank you so much for talking with us.

KING: Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Carole King, speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. She was one of the honorees last month at the Kennedy Center Lifetime Artistic Achievement Awards. After a break, we'll hear from one of the artists who saluted her at that awards show, Aretha Franklin. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


THE CHIFFONS: (Singing) One fine day, you'll look at me and then you'll know our love was meant to be. One fine day you're gonna want me for your girl. The arms I long for, will open wide, and you'll be proud to have me right by your side. One fine day you’re gonna want me for your girl. Though I know you’re the kind of boy who only wants to run around, I'll be waiting and someday, darling…

GROSS: Carole King's new memoir is called "A Natural Woman." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Let's hear her version of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" from her 1971 album "Tapestry."


KING: (Singing) Tonight you're mine completely. You give your love so sweetly. Tonight the light of love is in your eyes. But will you love me tomorrow? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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